Post-Traumatic Stress Becomes a Campaign Issue


It’s one month until election day and the political rhetoric is heating up. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke to the Retired American Warriors PAC in Herndon, VA on Monday and his remarks about post-traumatic stress have provoked some extreme reactions. Here’s a video clip of the controversial exchange:

To recap: Trump responded this way to a question about whether the United States should embrace a more “holistic” (i.e. faith-based) approach to treating post-traumatic stress:

“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat — and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it. And they see horror stories. They see events that you couldn’t see in a movie. Nobody would believe it.”

He then repeated a disputed number about the veteran suicide rate:

“So we’re gonna have a very, very robust — very, very robust — level of performance having to do with mental health. We are losing so many great people that can be taken care of if they had proper care,” Trump continued. “You know, when you hear the 22 suicides a day — big part of your question — but when you hear the 22 suicides a day, that should never be. That should never be. So we’re gonna be addressing that very strongly, and the whole mental health issue is going to be a very important issue when I take over, and the VA is going to be fixed in so many ways, but that’s gonna be one of the ways we’re gonna help, and that’s in many respects going to be the No. 1 thing we have to do because I think it’s really been left behind.”

There was a swift response: many observers focused on the “you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it” quote and asserted that Trump implied that men and women suffering from post-traumatic stress are weak (or at least they’re “not strong”).

Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) spoke to the Hollywood Reporter (not a typo) about Mr. Trump’s comments:

“It’s a teachable moment for Mr. Trump and for America. When political leaders talk about things like PTSD and suicide, they need to be responsible and precise. And unfortunately, Trump is not a precise person.”

Rieckhoff believes the candidate needs to be more careful with his language:

“When people in power use terms like ‘killing yourself’ and ‘mental problems,’ it perpetuates the stigma, it compounds the impression that these veterans are broken, and it can discourage them from seeking help. And also, he assumed that no one in the audience has PTSD, which is a really unlikely assumption in a room full of war veterans. Getting help for a mental health injury is not a sign of weakness. It’s a demonstration of strength.”

Vice President Joe Biden, in full campaign mode, launched into Mr. Trump a few hours later at Clinton rally in Florida:

Biden talked about his late son Beau’s service in Iraq and his own 29 visits to Iraq and Afghanistan before telling a story:

“I found myself in Iraq being asked by General [Raymond T.] Odierno — a four-star — to pin a silver medal on a young captain who had pulled someone out of a burning Humvee, risking his life. And when I went to pin it on him in front of the entire brigade, he said to me — looked at me and said, ‘Sir, I don’t want the medal. I don’t want the medal.’ You know why? He said, ‘He died. He died, Mr. Vice President. I don’t want the medal.’ How many nights does that kid go to sleep seeing that image?” Biden said, beginning to yell. “Dealing with it?”

Biden continued his criticism during an interview with CNN on Tuesday morning:

While saying that Trump is “not a bad guy,” he continued to discuss his encounter with the captain:

“That kid probably goes to sleep every night with a nightmare. And this guy doesn’t understand any of that? How can he not understand that? How can he be so out of touch? He’s not a bad guy. But how can he be so out of touch and ask to lead this country This is an ignorant man. This guy says things he has no idea about. He’s not a bad man. But his ignorance is so profound. So profound.”

Is the Republican candidate insensitive to the stigma faced by veterans coping with post-traumatic stress? Does he need to be more careful with his language? Maybe this is the kind of overheated response we should expect during a campaign season. Does this kind of debate help raise awareness of the issue? Sound off!